Scotland, an English parliament and the Labour Party

My letter in the Guardian of 18 May 2011 questioned Madeleine Bunting’s description, also in the Guardian, of the option of an English parliament as “unappealing” and her fear that if England had its own parliament, it would spell the demise of the Labour party.  Unfortunately the Guardian edited my letter in such a way as to obscure its intended meaning in some respects.  So here is the full text as submitted to the Guardian, with added hyperlinks:

Madeleine Bunting’s wake-up call about the implications for England of Scottish secession from the UK (If Scotland goes, all we’ll have left is the Englishness we so despise, May 16) is timely and rings many bells, but she needn’t dismiss “the unappealing option of an English parliament” as part of a federal Britain, which would be greatly preferable to dismembering the UK through Scottish independence and good in itself for the whole country.  Devolution of all internal powers to the parliaments and governments of all four UK nations, with minimal functions left to the federal government and parliament at Westminster and safeguards against English dominance, would solve many problems besides Scotland’s demand for full self-government, including our besetting sin of over-centralisation, the West Lothian Question and the other anomalies created by incomplete devolution.

Nor need Ms Bunting fear that an English parliament “spells the (Labour) party’s demise”:  according to an expert comment on my blog, there have been only two UK Labour governments which didn’t have a majority of members in England, in 1950 and for a few months after February 1974. (After the October 1974 election there was the Lib-Lab pact in which no party had a majority in either the UK or in England.) All other Labour governments have had majorities in England.   Labour would need to adapt radically to an internally self-governing England within a federal UK, but that might be no bad thing; the other parties would have to adapt and change too.  Given leadership and a national consensus on the objective, it could all be accomplished in under 20 years.  Better than Scotland breaking up the UK!


5 Responses

  1. JoolsB says:

    2005???? Depends what you call a majority. Thanks to the biased voting system in Labour’s favour, they may have won a majority of seats in England in 2005 but the Tories won the most votes.  Hopefully the equalisation of the boundary sizes will make the chances of them getting a majority in England ever again even less likely.

    Brian writes: Thank you for this. You will recall that for years the voting system and distribution of voters by constituency was even more heavily weighted in favour of the Conservatives, who (for example) won fewer votes nationally in the second 1951 election but won the election, ending the historic Attlee government of 1945. Neither you nor I can possibly forecast how the Tory device, not only to make constituencies more nearly equal but also drastically to reduce the number of UK constituencies, will affect the outcome in England at the next election. This reorganisation has been widely denounced as gerrymandering in the Tories’ favour. It’s reasonable to hope that if and when England gets its own parliament and government, there will be a referendum of English voters to approve or reject a constitution for England which will include or be accompanied by a demonstrably fair electoral boundaries revision system and a fair and effective electoral system. I would also hope that the incentive for the Labour Party to seek to win power in a new English parliament would revive and reinvigorate the English Labour party sufficiently to give it a handsome victory, both in England and in the UK Federal parliament at Westminster.

  2. Michele says:

    How can ” … to make constituencies more nearly equal ” be considered to be gerrymandering in the Tories favour? Is ‘equality’ now considered to be unfair?  In light of the disgraceful inequity enforced by labour, perhaps their silence on this matter may be more appropriate. 

    And their recent conversion to the idea of an English Parliament after their 13 years of deliberate neglect, is nothing more than cynical opportunism,  It doesn’t fool me, and I despise them even more for it.

    Brian writes: As far as I know, no-one is suggesting that making the electorates of constituencies more nearly equal constitutes gerrymandering, although there’s a genuine question-mark over the wisdom and fairness of giving precedence to equality of population over the maintenance of coherent communities within constituency boundaries. There are also issues over the adoption of the electoral registers as the measure of population, since in some areas there are many more people than are registered to vote between elections, for example where there are many students, many of whom will register to vote when an election is approaching. Basing the equalising on the registers and omitting transient or other normally unregistered elements obviously favours the Conservatives. The main suspicion of gerrymandering however concerns the arbitrary and purposeless reduction in the number of MPs, being imposed without any all-party consensus such as would be normal and obviously desirable in such matters, and generally calculated by the experts as being likely to favour the Tories: plus the extreme haste with which the changes are being made, with sharp reductions in the scope and time being allowed for appeals against specific changes being recommended by the Boundary Commissions. It’s also relevant that Cameron has shamelessly packed the house of lords, creating more peers in one year than any of his predecessors have done over much longer periods, so that the danger of the boundary changes running into trouble in the second chamber is reduced to virtually zero.

    I would welcome your evidence for the charge that Labour has “enforced inequity” in the distribution of population by constituency. This has hitherto been done by the independent and impartial Boundary Commissions with plenty of time and scope for appeals by any party or individual. For many years the inequality of population size, that’s unavoidable in any system, strongly favoured the Conservatives at the expense of Labour; the pendulum has swung back only comparatively recently. I know of no change in the procedures for periodic independent review of boundaries introduced under Labour from that employed under the Conservatives. If you know of any such change “enforced” by Labour and creating “inequity”, perhaps you would share the information with us.

    I am equally baffled by your condemnation of (presumably) the Labour Party for its “recent conversion to the idea of an English Parliament” after 13 years of “deliberate neglect” (neglect of what or whom?). If the Labour party has been converted to the idea of an English parliament, it’s the first I’ve heard of it. It would be very good news if it were true. But once again I can’t help suspecting that you are imagining it.

  3. JoolsB says:

    “This reorganisation has been widely denounced as gerrymandering in the Tories’ favour.”

    Totally agree with Michele. Gerrymandering is what Labour did for 13 years and now they have the nerve to accuse the Tories of it.  It’s an insult to democracy that Blair could get a 60+ seat majority in 2005 with 1 MILLION votes  less than Cameron in 2010 who couldn’t even get a majority although he did win a handsome majority in England but then the wishes of England don’t count do they? 

     As for Labour suddenly pretending they care about England, it’s a little too late and they’re fooling no-one! Scotland will still send Labour MPs down to Westminster to govern England despite voting for SNP for their own parliament and then Labour will realise they don’t need to pretend to be concerned about the unfairness created by them in English afterall.

    Brian writes: Most of your comments are dealt with by my response to Michele, (here). As for your suggestion that Scottish MPs at Westminster of any party “govern England”, the very idea ignores the elementary arithmetic and also betrays a curious inability to understand how different the situation looks from Scotland. If and when we complete the devolution process and adopt a fully federal constitution, the only parliamentarians and government ministers who will “govern England” will be those elected to an English parliament by English voters, just as those who now govern Scotland are parliamentarians and ministers elected to the Scottish parliament by Scottish voters. The parliament and government at Westminster will have limited jurisdiction, mainly for foreign affairs and defence, with no powers to intervene in the internal affairs of England, Scotland, Wales or Northern Ireland. At present England is governed by a parliament (and the government which it produces) with an enormous majority of MPs elected in England, reflecting England’s population size. Since devolution Scotland’s representation at Westminster has been reduced and the average size of Scottish constituencies is more or less the same as those in England.

  4. Chris Vine says:

    Brian, on your response to comment 2 “I would welcome your evidence for the charge that Labour has ‘enforced inequity’ in the distribution of population by constituency.”

    I suspect what your commenter was referring to is the Labour party’s objections to Welsh and English constituencies being equalised. Personally, I think that that is unarguable now that the Welsh Assembly has obtained legislative powers, and is what the Labour party did to Scotland after the establishment of the Scottish Parliament. Labour have never explained why what was good for Scotland is not now good for Wales.

    Frankly, both main parties are playing games here, which makes it all rather depressing: the Tories by moving representation to a registered voter metric, and Labour by objecting to the principle of equalisation. The Tories’ special exception for very low population areas, which coincidentally (or not) are all Lib Dem constituencies, also stinks.

    Brian writes: Thank you for this, Chris. I wasn’t aware that Labour was opposed to greater equalisation of constituencies, nor of what are its reasons for opposition if so. I would have thought that everyone would be in favour of as much equality of population size of constituencies as can be achieved, although some would give greater weight than others to the desirability of respecting recognisable communities in drawing constituency boundaries (especially perhaps when it comes to islands, from Scilly and the Isle of Wight to Orkney and Shetland). Drawing lines through existing communities with bubbles and wiggles to achieve perfect equality obviously lays itself open to manipulation — aka gerrymandering. I’m equally in the dark over Labour policy in regard to equalisation of Welsh and English constituencies, although I know that was carried out in respect of Scottish and English ones. Does Wales now have as extensive legislative powers as Scotland?

  5. Chris Vine says:

    “Thank you for this, Chris. I wasn’t aware that Labour was opposed to greater equalisation of constituencies, nor of what are its reasons for opposition if so”

    On Labour’s attitude to equalisation, I only have Peter Hain, Shadow S/S for Wales to go on, who opposed equalisation at second reading of the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill on 6 September last year, saying “This Bill, however, will impose on Wales the most savage cut of all – a fact that the hon. Member for Cardiff North (Jonathan Evans) actually celebrated. Wales will lose three times the proportion of MPs as the average for the rest of the United Kingdom – a reduction of a full quarter from 40 to 30. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Torfaen said, how can that possibly be justified?” (the reduction of members from Wales is indeed greater than elsewhere, as other parts of the UK are only affected by the actually rather minor reduction to 600 members of the Commons).

    I assume he was speaking for the shadow cabinet since this was a set-piece debate. You can read his contribution at . He is an arch-opportunist of course. After ceasing to be S/S for Wales he suddenly discovered that the Barnett formula is unfair to Wales, albeit the formula is something that the Labour party would defend to the death in Scotland. As it happens I don’t really see a problem with the Barnett formula. It operates efficiently and gives most of the oil money back to Scotland without causing too much offence elsewhere in doing so.

    “Does Wales now have as extensive legislative powers as Scotland?”

    The Welsh Assembly has similar, though not identical, powers to the Scottish Parliament, although they work in opposite directions. In Scotland, everything is devolved which is not reserved. In Wales, the Assembly has now acquired competence over the matters mentioned in Schedule 7 to the Government of Wales Act 2006 following the successful referendum on Assembly Act powers – see (see also section 108 of that Act).

    It covers the usual gamut of health, education, housing, roads, town planning, local government and the like.

    Brian writes: Thank you for this, Chris. Your account of Peter Hain’s attitude to equalisation in Wales is illuminating, although I’m not sure how far it can be taken as defining the Labour party’s attitude to constituency equalisation over the whole UK. I can see problems with the Barnett formula being applied to Scotland at a time of savage retrenchment in public spending in England and Wales, driven by policies on the deficit and national debt which the SNP rejects. Salmond will be able to argue that funding for Scotland should be based on a combination of need (which the Barnett formula ignores) and a calculation of Scotland’s fair share of UK revenues, including from North Sea oil, and that Scotland should not be penalised for the ill-considered fiscal and economic policies of George Osborne. The SNP will of course say that only full independence can put this right. However the Calman Commission recommendations (pdf) are surely the joker in this pack, and their implementation if it occurs will have a major impact on the independence debate.

    If and when we proceed to a full federal system for the UK, it will in my view be essential to ensure that (as now with Scotland but not Wales) residual powers lie with the four nations, and that the Westminster federal organs have responsibility only for the subjects specifically reserved to them in the constitution. IOW, devolution will be reversed: sovereignty will lie with the four nations, which will devolve certain specified and limited powers upwards to the federal level, not vice versa as at present.

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